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updated: 1/31/2011 6:40 PM

Building configuration raised at forum on Millburn school referendum

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By C.L. Waller

Millburn Elementary District 24 residents who turned out for a public forum about a Nov. 2 referendum weren't only thinking about the ballot question.

They also spoke out about whether District 24 should change how schools are organized to maintain small class sizes and manage finances in the long-term.

The district has about 1,600 students in two buildings - Millburn Central near Wadsworth and Millburn West in Lindenhurst - with kindergarten through eighth grades at each.

"For years I've heard about the Millburn way and I decided it was small class sizes and parent involvement," resident Jane Gattone said during Wednesday's forum at Millburn West.

If small class sizes are important, the district should consider grade-level centers, with kindergarten through fifth at one building and sixth through eighth grades at the other, she said.

Some residents disagreed.

"Millburn West needs to stay as a small school," resident Hannah Filson said. "You need to realize these programs are important to parents."

About 50 people attended the forum designed to provide information and hear from the public about a proposal to offset the loss of state payments by raising the property tax rate by nearly 73 cents.

For homeowners, the new rate would increase tax bills by an estimated $244 for each $100,000 of assessed value, meaning the owner of a $300,000 home would pay nearly $732 more.

"I worry it's a little too fast, too soon. Given the economy, we all need to conserve a little bit," resident Gail Weyhrich said.

Millburn cut $1.3 million from its budget last year and even with referendum approval, more cuts and larger class sizes will be needed. The referendum outcome will determine the depth of future cuts.

If it is successful, there would also be $510,000 in budget reductions, which means eliminating 9.86 staff positions, using one athletic conference for both buildings, and class sizes of 18 to 27 for sixth through eighth grades and 21 to 27 for kindergarten through fifth.

If it fails, there would be $1.4 million in budget reductions, eliminating 23.14 staff positions, district-level rather than building-level choir and athletics, and class sizes of 26 to 34 for sixth through eighth grades and 25 to 36 for kindergarten through fifth.

School board member Lisa Scanio said the decision to ask for a referendum was to give residents a choice and focus on the 2011-12 school year.

To balance the budget in 2011-12, the district needs to cut another $1.1 million mainly to offset the loss of state payments and pay down money borrowed through tax anticipation warrants.

While the district is required to budget for receipt of the state money, the dollars are not arriving on schedule. If the state does not have the money in June 2011, it may not provide the money due at all, Superintendent Ellen Mauer said.

"We're planning penny to penny, dollar to dollar," Mauer said.

Board member Scanio said moving to grade centers needs a thorough discussion and it could come up again as Millburn begins to create a strategic plan.